Deaf prison inmates in Oregon have struggled over the past four years to gain access to competent American Sign Language translators, according to a new report released by the Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities Prison Project.
Inmates with disabilities make up 31 percent of state prison populations nationally, the report says, and their magnified suffering is often dealt with carelessly by prison staff around the U.S.
"People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment," says Mark Stroh, Executive Director of Disability Rights Washington said in a statement. "In drafting this report, we have found that inmates with disabilities are often neglected and excluded from programs, rehabilitation, and basic medical care, subjecting them to additional forms of punishment solely due to their disability."
In Oregon, that unfair treatment has often burdened deaf inmates who need translators.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires U.S. prisons and jails to provide "qualified interpreters (certified, where possible, by a recognized certification agency)" to help deaf inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs.
However, as reported by The Oregonian, two deaf inmates filed lawsuits against the Oregon Department of Corrections in 2014, one concluding with the prison system paying $150,000 to Merle Baldridge. Baldridge had been denied both an ASL interpreter and desirable jobs within the prison because of his inability to communicate verbally.
The new AVID document says that, following these reports, Disability Rights Oregon worked with the prison system to create a policy that facilitates efficient communication with deaf inmates by creating a statewide ADA coordinator position and ordering the use of certified sign language interpreters, rather than untrained imates.
The Oregon section of the report concludes by saying that, though the new policy has been largely effective, "recent complaints indicate that untrained inmate interpreters are still being used in some situations that compromise the safety and welfare of the deaf and hard of hearing inmates." Advocates for the deaf inmates, the report says, are contemplating filing a lawsuit to end that practice.
AVID is a project overseen by Disability Rights Washington, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the disabled, and its report describes how disability rights groups, including Disability Rights Oregon, have fought to increase the rights of disabled inmates in Oregon and 20 other states over the past two to three years.
On average, the 40-page report says, disabled inmates are sentenced to 15 more months in prison than inmates serving time for similar crimes and are four times more likely to report psychological distress than other inmates.